Beating Ebbinghaus — How to bend the forgetting curve.
“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”
— Dr. Suess
What were you doing this time last week? Do you remember? Who were you speaking to? What were you reading? What did you learn? If the answer is, “umm, not sure” or you quickly had to check your calendar, don’t worry — that means you’re just like everyone else. You’re human.
Why should you care? Learning is the life skill of the 21st century. Prognosticators and futurists predict that we will need different skills in the next ten years. But they can’t agree on which skills we will need. Learning, then, is your Swiss-army knife and get out of jail free card. If you are a lifelong learner, you can always learn a new skill. That’s why CEOs like Hans Vestberg of Verizon discuss the need to, "embrace the concept of lifelong learning."¹
The best leaders are the best learners.² Those leaders understand that conversations need to break through the noise and communicate with their audience. For them, understanding learning — and forgetting — is crucial.
In 1885, the German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus postulated about this phenomenon of memory.³ In 2019, Lou Tedrick and Michael Sunderman told me about it. It’s the human condition of forgetting what we’ve learned, and it goes by the snappy name of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.
A careful and systematic researcher, Ebbinghaus set out to study his own memory. He would write down lists to memorize, learn them by rote, measure how long it took to perfectly recall the list, and then, how long it would take to forget them. For his lists, he needed something learnable. Ebbinghaus also recognized he must guard against the possibility of prior memory. So, he invented the nonsense syllable.
The nonsense syllable — two consonants separated by a vowel such as nog, or baf. Ebbinghaus devised over 2,300 nonsense syllables and grouped them into lists. Then, over the course of a year, set out to memorize them by, “repeated audible perusal.” Meaning he read each nonsense syllable in each list, out loud, by rote.
Ebbinghaus undertook his trials between 1879 and 1880 and repeated them three years later. His work drew three conclusions:
First, it is easier to learn something that is meaningful and relevant to the learner.
Second, that we forget, and we forget pretty quickly (that’s the forgetting curve).
And third, relearning is easier than learning for the first time.
Bending the curve.
Think of the forgetting curve like death or taxes. It’s inevitable. And while you can’t beat the curve, you can bend it. How to bend it is an important lesson for all leaders, learners and learning designers.
Ebbinghaus discovery: We forget rapidly right after learning. This slows down over time (Boneau, 1998; Craighead & Nemeroff, 2001).
To help your memory, here’s a group of three to bend the curve: understand, engage and remember.
‘Chunking’ is a technique to help us remember. It seems to work because it’s similar to how we naturally organize information in memory.⁴ The brain automatically breaks information down into meaningful, spaced clusters. While research differs on how many ‘chunks’ we can easily stuff into working memory, three seems to be a magic number.⁵
The first and biggest hurdle to learning is understanding. Think of a rocket scientist trying to teach astrophysics to a kindergartner. Or your own experience. Assuming you’re not a physicist or mathematician, try learning quantum physics sometime. Imagine trying to explain an area of expertise you have, to someone that doesn’t speak English very well.
We don’t understand because there are complexity barriers: Prior knowledge and expertise, language and terms of art, dependent understanding and skills. The counter to this, and the first key to understanding, is simplicity.
Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winning physicist, “was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students.”
A colleague of his said, “once, I said to him, "Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics." Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But he came back a few days later to say, "I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don't really understand it."” ⁶
This ability to explain complex subjects in ways a child could understand it is known as the Feynman technique.
As you try this technique for yourself, you’ll notice how much complex language we use. Sub in a use for a utilize. Be fast instead of expeditious. Develop skills not proficiencies. And A.U.Y.A. (Always Unpack Your Acronyms.)
As well as simple language, you’ll notice the power of metaphor and vivid language. Charismatic leaders use metaphors.⁷ Effective salespeople and marketers frequently use metaphors.⁸ In working through change management or business strategy we use metaphors to help people make sense of an uncertain future.⁹
A well-chosen metaphor and rich language can cut through the clutter. It makes connections, little mental hooks in your mind that make that statement both appealing and sticky, like a carrot cake.
Metaphors help people see the big picture, get on the same page, and connect dots. They aren’t literal, and they don’t have to be. We (usually) aren’t all seeing a big picture. We are not standing on the same page (there wouldn’t be room), and the dots connected are figurative ones, not literal ones.
Stories paint vivid pictures with words. In business, stories are under-used and under-rated forms of information containers. Instead we default to PowerPoint slides and email. The right story, well-told, connects to an audience. It is far more memorable, more persuasive, more meaningful, than facts alone.
“A story does what facts and statistics never can: it inspires and motivates. Expert storytellers translate complex ideas into practical examples laced with strong emotional connections. The audience tunes in because they see themselves woven into the story.” ¹⁰
Understanding something is one thing, paying attention is another. You speak English, and you can read. Ever tried reading the dictionary? Or (if you remember what they look like) the Yellow Pages? I imagine not. Because you, like everyone else in the world, don’t like being bored.
The antidote to the boredom barrier is engagement. If you lead people, you have to figure out how to engage people. If you are a learning designer, or an information architect, a content creator, or a user interface designer, you have to figure out how to engage people. If you’re human, you have to figure out how to engage people.
There are three keys to engagement. The first is relevance, the second emotion, and the third are our senses.
Thinking about them, the audience, and what is relevant to them, is not just the job of designers. Although relevance is central to the job of information architects, user experience designers and design thinkers. The tools and constructs they use, personas, user stories, and empathy maps, all put the audience at the center of the action, and allow designers to make their content relevant to that audience.
Relevance, according to my partner Rose Fass, “is an idea or product whose time has come... it is when people are connected to something they care about.”¹¹ What makes things relevant to people? When it’s about them. When it impacts them. When their lives are affected. When the threat, or reward is looming. The challenge for you as you prepare your content, your message or your idea, is how do you make it relevant to them (your audience)? The answer lies in making your content about them.
The second key to engagement is emotion. Neuroscientists call this process of laying down memories encoding. Emotion leads us to pay more attention.¹² Emotions influence learning and memory.¹³ Emotions play a critical role in reasoning¹⁴ and problem-solving.¹⁵
Emotion is a double-edged sword. You have to goldilocks it. Too little emotion, and your content is dry and sterile. It doesn’t facilitate learning.¹⁶ Put simply, the more heightened emotion attached to something, the more aware we are. The more we feel, the better we remember.
Too much emotion, and we increase cognitive load. We’re outside of our comfort zone, and can’t focus. We’re too distracted, we don’t pay attention.
A third way of facilitating engagement is to stimulate the senses. The more you can engage the senses, the better we can stimulate learning and memory. This partly explains how media has evolved. Virtual reality followed video games, which followed television, which followed radio, which followed newsprint, which followed word-of-mouth. Savvy retailers know that engaging a shoppers sense of sound, sight, smell and touch can increase sales.¹⁷
Increasing what learning designers call modality — the number of senses in use — generally creates a richer experience. This increases engagement. This does not mean the future is a Virtual Reality world, with all content set in Virtual Reality. Much depends on content and context for the audience. A comedian in a stand-up set is primarily using your sense of hearing. While full Virtual Reality has immersive vision, sound, even touch. But a well-crafted stand-up set can be far more engaging than a poor VR experience.
Everything we do to increase understanding — simplicity, metaphor and stories — also have a positive impact on memory. What we do to increase engagement — increasing relevance, tapping into emotions, and stimulating the senses — also makes things more memorable.
This doesn’t account for how we can aid memory after the learning moment. This taps into Ebbinghaus’ third insight — that we relearn more easily than we learn. Skilled communicators and learning designers can embed learning, and further bend the forgetting curve, through spaced learning, encouraging deliberate practice and building communities of practice.
Our memories are built brick by brick, moment by moment, over time. As we continue to learn over a lifetime, some lessons are long-forgotten, and some are still clear and vivid. One method of making sure that ‘brick’ of memory is still clear is spaced learning. This is what Ebbinghaus first discovered — that periodic exposure to the same material is better than a single ‘cramming’ session. Although the neurological process for this is argued over, the effect of repeated exposure is well understood.¹⁸
In training circles, this repeated exposure is known as spaced learning. Burst and Boost or Microlearning are among the most common — where training is chunked into short, chewable, information-rich bursts. This is followed, hours, days and weeks later by a series of boosts, quick interactions designed to remind and reinforce the initial training. Burst and boost doesn’t have to be all digital. It may also be a form of blended learning, with a mixture of live and digitally mediated content. This is now a commonly adopted practice in leading learning organizations such as Google,¹⁹ Chevron, and Gap.
Adult learning works in some of the same ways as childhood learning. We don’t learn very well when we only focus on one subject or skill at a time. This is called blocking, and blocking gets boring. Instead, we learn better when we interleave our learning.
Interleaving²⁰ learning helps make the subject sticky. Here, skills are not built one at a time, in a strict sequence. Instead, they’re broken down into component parts, and each skill is improved in parallel with others.
Compare learning to be a better communicator with learning to be a better tennis player. As a tennis player, instead of focusing entirely on forehand, and mastering that skill before you moved on to backhand, volley and then serve, you would interleave learning and practice. You would learn a rudimentary forehand, practice some backhands, develop some workable serve, and then play. You would then practice each element and gradually improve.
Learning to communicate then, may focus you first on public speaking, interleaved with writing, creating PowerPoint slides, and storytelling. Each facet of learning will help improve the other.
This is how we should — but don’t — think of building learning programs in business. Skill building, and its larger cousin, capability building, is gradual. It happens with practice and time.
The best learning organizations focus on practice. The military maxim, “train hard, fight easy” captures this idea. It has spun hundreds of variations like, “you do not rise to the occasion, you simply fall back to your level of training” or, “playing like you practice.” Deliberate practice is a way of practicing with focus and intent to make learning turn into skill-building and continued improvement.
Communities of practice
Communities of practice, a term first coined by Ettiene Wenger and William Snyder,²¹ are groups informally bound together by shared expertise and passion. Communities of practice are woven through every organization, around what Wenger describes as domain, community and practice. The domain is the area of interest or mutual engagement of the group. It could be anything from strategy to social sciences, learning to leadership, neuroscience to network technology. Community develops as the group works together. That shared engagement could be facilitated by shared events or meetings, slack channels or lunches. Practice comes from shared experiences, stories, and social learning. The community of practice learns and improves together. It develops shared processes, methods and tools that build scale in an organization.
Building communities of practice, by facilitating community and nurturing domains, moves an organization from a collection of individual skills to a business capability.
Did we forget something?
Learning is hard work. It’s also part of life. When you stop learning, you stop growing. That applies equally for people and businesses.
For yourself, treat learning as an integral part of your job. It should be part of what makes the job fun and interesting. As a leader, part of your job is helping people learn, and practice. As a business builder, you have to actively build business capabilities to move your business forward. It all comes back to learning.
In our business, we call this practice of learning Nurture and Nudge. It's paying attention to all the small things that help build skills — understanding, engaging, and remembering. It’s hard work, and we’re still learning and practicing, all with a singular intent — to bend the forgetting curve.
Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience.